Every Friday for several weeks now the western media publishes the same story. This is of protests in Syria, which are invariably said to be the “amongst the biggest” or “the biggest ever”. A list of towns in Syria is given where the protests are said to have taken place. References are made to film supposedly of the protests appearing on YouTube. Reports are provided of violence against the protesters by the security forces. Dozens and sometimes scores of people are said to have been killed. These deaths are then added to a mounting total of deaths since the protests began, which is then published every week and now runs to well over a thousand.
It requires careful reading to notice that these reports all have one origin, which is the Syrian opposition, and that they lack any credible outside verification or corroboration. Whilst protests have unquestionably taken place it is a remarkable act of faith to assume that those who claim to be organising the protests are the ones who can be trusted to report them accurately.
It is an act of faith which recent events show is unwarranted. Back in February, just a month before the protest movement in Syria began, a wave of protests hit Libya. As is now the case with Syria western reporting of the protests in Libya amounted to reproducing claims about the protests made by the Libyan opposition. Many of these claims were extremely lurid. Thus the western media uncritically reproduced stories of peaceful protesters being fired on by heavy machine guns, of mercenaries attacking protesters with machetes and of the Libyan air force bombing residential suburbs. Inflated claims were made of the number of protesters killed with figures eventually running into thousands leading to talk of genocide charges.
On the ground investigations in Libya by such agencies as the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International have since shown that the claims about the protests made by the Libyan opposition in February and uncritically reproduced by the western media at the time were almost entirely untrue. The Libyan authorities did not fire on peaceful protesters with heavy machine guns. There are no large numbers of machete wielding mercenaries in Libya. The Libyan air force did not bomb residential districts. As for the number of people killed the true number turned out to be not the thousands claimed by the Libyan opposition but the hundred or so reported at the time by the Libyan government.
There is no reason to think that the claims the Syrian opposition are making today are any more reliable than the claims the Libyan opposition made in February. Uncritical acceptance of Libyan opposition claims led western governments into a military intervention they probably now regret, which has turned out to be based on a string of wrong assumptions and false facts. Given that this is so one wonders why in reporting Syria the western media seems so intent on making the same mistake.